Pack in the Protein

Eat Better

Pack in the Protein

If you’re over 30, you have a problem. Starting at that age, most people lose muscle each year — sometimes as much as five percent if you’re not physically active — as the body starts tearing down old muscle at a faster rate than it can build new.

A host of reasons can be blamed for sarcopenia (science-speak for the age-related loss of muscle mass), including a reduced ability to use protein to support and produce muscle, fluctuating hormones, the loss of nerve cells responsible for sending signals to the muscles, and, for many, reduced physical activity.

This can be devastating. Losing muscle mass means losing strength. Sure, playing a round of golf may be harder. But even simple things like taking your groceries out of the cart or opening a jar of pickles will be more difficult as well. The loss of muscle mass can also lead to some dangerous consequences, including decreased bone mass, increased risk of fractures, insulin resistance, and disability.

But aging doesn’t have to equal sarcopenia. In addition to resistance exercise at least twice a week, you should also be adding plenty of protein into your diet. The amino acids in protein are the building blocks of muscle. And while the RDA for protein for adults is about 10 grams of protein for every 25 pounds of body weight per day, that may not be enough, especially as you get older.

One study found that people who ate twice the current RDA for protein had the most success at building muscle.1 And it didn’t take long to see protein’s muscle-boosting effect. In the study, participants had higher rates of protein synthesis within just four days.

Low-fat dairy, fish, lean meats, and dried beans and legumes are all good, healthy sources of protein for meals. Protein-rich snacks include hard-boiled eggs, low-fat cottage cheese, Greek yogurt and hummus.

Whether as a main meal or a snack, dried beans are an especially great protein to add. Whatever your favorite — black, kidney, navy, lima, garbanzo, pinto, or white — they all deliver an impressive 7 grams of protein per one-half cup, cooked. That’s as much as an ounce of meat.

To help you add some beans into your life, here’s a recipe for Three Bean Thing on page 147 of Good Food, Great Medicine. You can use any beans you like but these are sturdy and still look fresh a week later.  If the onion is mild, use 2 cups. Diced bell pepper of any color is a good addition (and traditional, too) if you have some.

Makes about 5 cups

  • 1–2 cups sweet onion, sliced in strips no more than ¼-inch x 1-inch
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon freshly crushed garlic
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper1 can (15 ounces) red kidney beans
  • 1 can (15 ounces) garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
  • 1 can (15 ounces) cut green beans

1. Combine onion with oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper, and set aside. (This marinates the onions slightly, and makes them taste milder if they are hot. If onions are mild, I always use at least 2 cups to balance the beans.)

2. Drain and rinse kidney beans and chickpeas and set aside in colander to drain thoroughly. (Tossing beans in the colander with a dry paper towel helps.)

3. Drain green beans. (S&W cut green and yellow wax beans are a pretty combination.) Combine all drained beans with onions in dressing and mix well.

Reprinted with permission from Good Food, Great Medicine (3rd edition), by Miles Hassell, MD and Mea Hassell © 2014.

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1. Kim IY, Schutzler S, Schrader A, et al. Quantity of dietary protein intake, but not pattern of intake, affects net protein balance primarily through differences in protein synthesis in older adults. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2015;308(1):E21-E28. PMID: 25352437.